New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

Giving Thanks

At the end of college, I experienced a great failure of imagination. I was terrified that I would be chained to a desk for the next forty-odd years and that nothing interesting would happen. Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. It’s just that when I looked into the yawning blank future, I didn’t know what to fill it with.

Arriving in Korea is a bit like that. Here I am, living the expat life I’ve been preparing for, in one way or another, since 2003. And now that I have it, I find myself worrying that it will be nothing but what it is right now: get up, go to a corporate job, come home tired, repeat. Is that all there is to living abroad?

An interesting life

Of course, my life is already way more interesting than that. I’m dating, spending time with friends. I’ve thrown a party with eight nationalities in attendance, had Central Asian food in Dongdaemun with a new friend from Kyrgyzstan, seen paintings from the Musee D’Orsay and traditional Korean music performances, wandered the boutiques of Samcheondong with a real actual fashion consultant from Bergdorf’s in Manhattan. Tonight I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner of a sort: I’m throwing a party, and we’ll eat sandwiches made from the sliced turkey I found at the Emart Everyday near my office.

Life will inevitably have its future twists and turns, too, but I don’t know what shape they’ll take yet. I’m new here, so it’s hard to imagine. I did pull myself out of my funk a little bit by making a five-year plan, a habit of my grandfather’s (he got it, presumably, from the socialists he admired in his youth). By my birthday in 2021, I will have enough savings that I can go hang out in a cheap place — e.g., Laos, Phoenix — for more or less as long as I want without worrying about it. I will be fluent in Korean. I will have a long-term residency visa in Korea. And I’ll be married. (For those of you who’ve known me in my bachelor adventurer years, circa 2012-present, that last one might come as a surprise, but yes, I would like to make a long-term connection.)

You know, or not.

All of this is, like everything in life, subject to change. As my father is fond of saying, if something is more than three weeks away, don’t worry about it. You still have to plan, though. It’s just the worrying that you don’t get much value from.

Manager shoes

But you know what really lifted me out of my funk?

Shoes.

I’d noticed that the managers a couple of layers above me weren’t wearing dress shoes. Those, it turns out, are for lower-level guys who are trying to look serious. No, the managers wear what I think of as dress sneakers. And I wanted to start dressing like the managers.

It took me a while to find these shoes. I tramped all over Gangnam, Garosu-gil, Myeongdong, Hapjeong, to no avail. You don’t find them at ABC Mart or Folder, the chain shoe stores you find everywhere. But on Monday night I headed over to COEX Mall, and I found a little shop called Salt & Chocolate, and they had so many amazing shoes that I bought three pairs.

I acknowledge that this is a very Sex and the City way of dealing with existential dread and political despair. It’s not my usual thing. But you know what? It worked. And I’m somewhere very new, figuring out what works. There’s a shallowness to my current condition — an unbearable lightness, if you will — and maybe shallow responses are in order. It’s amazing what new shoes or a good Turkish dinner can do for my state of mind. And it wasn’t just the shoes either. It was finding the shoes: accomplishing a task, an effort of discovery, here in my new home.

Now I just need to figure out how to buy Bactine for the blisters.

Gratitude

Here in Seoul, the first snow is falling. It’s been a hard couple of weeks, but it’s Thanksgiving weekend back home, and it’s good to remember how much I have to be thankful for. I’m watching the snow from inside my warm home that will soon be filled with friends. I have a good job and a loving family and a brand new niece who was born on Halloween and is named Pumpkinella (her parents think her name is something else, but whatever). I have new shoes. I have new challenges to tackle and a new life to make my own. And there’s sliced turkey in the fridge.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Ultimate Answer

Seoul, South Korea

Today’s my birthday, and this year my age corresponds with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything — an answer that famously lacked a question.

At the moment, that seems about right. I’m in Korea now, living here — my birthday is my first full day here on my work visa — and this seems like the answer to a question that can’t be formulated.

I didn’t ask for Korea to be the answer. It sneaked up on me. And it’s the answer to what, exactly? I don’t know.

“Six by nine. Forty-two.”

Sometimes it doesn’t all add up, but there you are anyway. Today I’m 42 years old (though still 43 in Korean age, like I was yesterday), and I live in Seoul, Korea.

 

 

20160816_084542

Seoul, Korea

I really, really wanted this Engrish to be on purpose, like those PLAN AHEAD signs you see where the ending is all squished. Alas, Designer Miss Kim confirmed that it was just a mistake. In fact, she was selling these notebooks at a discount because they were misprinted. (And let’s not even get into the alright issue.)

Somehow “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is both more entertaining and more reassuring than a correctly spelled notebook would have been. Because everything is alright (or all right), even when it’s a little fucked up.

And besides, “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is a pretty good approximation of the way I speak Korean.

So, like, hang lose. Purra vida. No wories. Its all good. 괸차나. 다 조아.

Living in Korea

Seoul, South Korea

So here I am, living in Korea. I’ve been here since last week Tuesday evening, which, for those counting, is four nights, three days. (I still have to write about Tokyo and post pictures.)

Already it seems like ages. In this short time, I’ve moved into my summer residence — the same tiny goshiwon where I stayed last summer — started my language program, connected with various friends, gone to Itaewon and Shinchon and Hongdae and Samcheongdong and Bukcheon and done a little shopping, eaten galbi and kalguksu and cheese ramen and bingsu, and attended a cooking class where we made chimdak and haemul pajeon. I’ve done laundry and bought some housewares. I’ve made plans for a big hike tomorrow and to go see apartments with a real estate agent on Monday afternoon.

If it feels like I’ve been here a while, that’s partly because I’ve been here before. This time in Seoul is a continuation of my visits over the past three summers, during which I built up contacts and friendships and familiarity. I have a better mental map of Seoul than I do of Phoenix.

It’s different this time though. I’m saying. Sometimes that has me elated. At other moments it has me terrified. Mostly, though, so far it has relieved a certain pressure I’ve felt on previous trips to fill every moment, to fit it all in. If I have an empty day or evening this time, it’s fine. That happens in real life too.

For the moment, in my tiny little room, I still feel like a traveler. And I suppose I still am, in a way. But by September I’ll have a real home and a real job again for the first time in a long time. And it feels good to be laying the groundwork.

Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Seoul

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Just a couple of days left in the US, and then it’s on to the next phase of my life.

So here’s what’s next for me:

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that I’ll mostly be in Seoul, or possibly doing a bit of internal travel around Korea. It’s my new home, and while I won’t quite be officially moving there until September 7, it’s where I’m going to be setting up a new life for myself.

I’m excited to see my Korean friends again, and to make new friends there. I’m excited to be staying long enough in one place to build new relationships. I’m excited to have somewhere to call home — my home.

Joining Samsung in Seoul

Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

I am thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted an offer from Samsung. Starting in September, I will be working in the Seoul office as a Senior Designer, helping to craft the user interface (UI) text for mobile devices.

Saying no to Samsung

The whole process with Samsung actually began a year ago, when they found me on LinkedIn and began recruiting me. At the time, I was still at Google, but I was nearing the end of my MA in Korean studies at Columbia and already planning a move to Seoul in the future. I went through the interview process, they made an offer. And I declined.

It wasn’t the right time. Yes, I wanted to move to Korea, but I had also been planning these six months in Southeast Asia for a long time. When I get to Korea, I want to settle there — to make it my long-term home. I didn’t want to find myself staring out the office window, wondering when I’d ever get the chance to go on this trip I’d been thinking about for so long.

I talked to my family about my decision, and my father passed on some words of wisdom from my grandfather, his father-in-law: “Money comes and goes, but you can’t make up time.” I went on the trip. I figured that if Samsung didn’t want me in a year, someone else would. I’d manage in Korea just fine.

Saying yes to Samsung

Well, a year passed, and the recruiter got back in touch. And this time, I was ready to say yes. After my longest stretch of time off since before nursery school, I’m ready to go back to work.

And I’m excited to work on mobile devices. My time here in Southeast Asia has given me a look at a part of the world where mobile is how people connect to the Internet, to each other, to the wider world. I’ve seen how important these devices are, and how important it can be to get the design right so that people can use their devices to the fullest.

My writing at Google was on specialized ads software. It reached thousands. What I do at Samsung will reach millions. Samsung sells more smartphones worldwide than anyone else. Making these phones even marginally better to use can have a vast impact.

I can’t wait.

 

 

End-of-term Speech

Today I delivered a short speech in Korean as part of the closing ceremony for my monthlong Korean language program at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, on what has turned out to be my speaking tour of Asia. The speech was a hit with the teachers and staff, as well as with my classmates, all of whom were amused by how much of our new grammar I managed to work in.

As for the lower-level students, they were just confused — as I was confused by the opening speech by, well, someone — not sure who — who spoke in rapid, low-toned Korean for several minutes. It’s true what Psy said: “뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈” (“Wherever there’s a running man, there’s a flying man above,” a proverb that more or less means that no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better). But I suppose I could also make the claim now that “Baby baby 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈” (“I’m a guy who knows a little something”).

Below you can find the text of the speech in full, errors and all. (I assume there are errors.) Have fun running it through Google Translate, which makes a hash of what I intended to say, but which might actually capture the muddled flavor of my Korean.

안녕하십니까 여러분. 나는 미국에서 온 조쉬입니다.

벌써 한 달 진났습니다. 레벨 테스트를 봤습니다. 친절한 선생님을 만났습니다. 문법을 많이 배웠습니다. 발표 했습니다. 한 달 동안 우리 다 열심히 공부했습니다.

자, 사실에 보통 열심히 공부하지만 가끔도 궁부하는 동 마는 동 하면서 열심히 공부 한 적 했습니다. 어차피 한국어를 조금 배울 수 밖에 없다고 생각합니다.

그렇게 공부 할 만 했습니다. 하지만 공부 한 김에 더 중요한 것 교실 밖에 했습니다. 외데에 오면 세상을 만나다더니 한 달 후에 사실이라고 압니다. 일본, 러시아, 대만, 미국, 프랑스, 스페인, 영국, 독일 등 친구를 만들었습니다. 함게 같이 전통 음악 치고 Kpop 춤 추고 빳빙수 너무 많이 먹었습니다. 정말 한국 문화를 많이 즐거웠습니다.

우리 새로운 친구들을 그리울 겁니다. 하지만 너무 슬플 리가 없습니다. 세상에 어딘가 외대 친구가 만나면 기분이 좋겠습니다. 그리고 또 다시 한국에서 만나기 바랍니다.

감사합니다.

The Language School Bubble

When you go to a Korean-language immersion program, there are certain illusions to which you’re likely to fall prey, especially if you’re at something of an advanced level.

First, you might start to think that what you’re doing is normal. After all, everyone around you has also devoted years to learning your target language. You can lose sight of how uncommon it is — how downright weird it is — to spend hours upon hours trying to parse and retain this obscure and difficult language. And you can forget that not all people from Japan, England, Spain, France, Taiwan, and China have an interest in Korea, or even know where it is. You start to think that everyone everywhere cares who EXO is.

Second, you might come to believe that you’re actually pretty good at Korean. I’ve been hanging out with a group of Japanese women, communicating almost entirely in Korean, and we’ve been able to have a lot of fun and even some intelligent conversations about things like religion. But it’s an illusion created by the fact that we’re all at the same level: we know more or less the same grammar and vocabulary, so we don’t tend to use stuff that’s way beyond what our counterparts can understand.

But as soon as I get into a conversation with actual Koreans, I’m in trouble — especially if they’re talking to each other rather than just to me. I catch words, sentence endings here and there. I get general ideas, maybe, but miss important key points, like that the entire conversation was about someone’s boyfriend rather than about not having a boyfriend. In other words, I have no idea what’s going on most of the time, but now speak Korean well enough that I feel like I should be paying attention anyway.

Some of this is the midpoint letdown — I’m two weeks in, with two weeks left to go, and feeling frustrated by all the short trips I’ve had to Seoul these past few years, when what I really want is to live here, to settle in, to be able to commit myself to an extended period of learning. Two weeks is such a tiny span, but I feel like I’ve learned an enormous amount, met interesting people, started conversations that I want to continue. But I’ll be leaving again in two weeks. What I need here is time.

I’m excited for my upcoming travel in Southeast Asia, and I have no intention of giving that up. But this visit to Seoul has reaffirmed my desire to be here and stay here. And I know that when I come to stay, I will finally get an experience that right now feels tantalizingly just out of reach.

The Student Life

I am currently in Seoul, lying in bed in what is the tiniest room I’ve ever stayed in, resting my head on a pillow called Ratasha. I’m here at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in an outlying and moderately dumpy neighborhood, for a month of intensive Korean language study before I take my proficiency exam at Columbia University. I’m staying at what’s called a goshitel, which is a combination of the words goshi (exam) and hotel, and is a kind of fancified word for what’s more often called a goshiwon, or exam housing. They’re basically dorms with tiny little rooms for students who are cramming for tests or studying at universities. Mine is so small that I sleep with my feet under my closet. But it’s reasonably clean, reasonably cool, there’s a laundry machine down the hall, there’s free rice and kimchi in the kitchen, and it’s costing me a little over $400 for the month.

I’ve actually grown kind of used to the little place, as one does with pretty much anything in life. And I like the student life here. I have Korean classes every day from 9 am to 1 pm, at a high enough level that we’re having somewhat interesting conversations. My classmates range from a passel of undergrads of various nationalities — English, French, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese — to an 80-year-old Japanese guy who’s pretty much deaf, shouts a lot, and tends to make lots of semi-rude comments about drinking and the attractiveness of HUFS teachers. There’s also a retired Japanese woman, a Japanese woman who’s something like my age (she’s secretive about it), and a Spanish woman who teaches Spanish in Spain and wants to teach it here instead. After class we all go to the shitty campus cafeteria, where cranky ajummas dish out low-grade Korean food but it only costs $2 for lunch and you buy your meal tickets from big computerized vending machines.

It’s hard to believe I arrived just a week ago. It feels like I live here.

When I think about my plan to move to Seoul, I sometimes go down this rabbit hole of fear where I imagine myself all alone and miserable in the middle of a long Korean winter, with no one to talk to, living in some hellhole and hating myself for having come here. But every time I do come here, I find that my schedule fills up to the point that I have to plan time to be alone and do the alone things I want to do, like writing or studying. I have friends here, and I make new friends here easily, and I’ve been having fun on both counts. I’ve been all over Seoul, out to Gimpo, down to Suwon. I’ve seen foreign friends and Korean friends and gone out with classmates. I have discovered new neighborhoods where I might want to live when I come back. I have also studied quite a bit. I like it here.

Seoul by now is easy. I still have fears about living here, but it’s easy both because I’m used to it and because it’s improving. You can get flossers now at Daiso, and I’ve been told that you can walk into a pharmacy these days and just ask for the medicines you want — not like the old days, where you told the pharmacist what was wrong with you and received a mystery packet of pills. There are bagels, though they are not ever going to be New York bagels.

There are friends. There are, in fact, people here who love me.

Things that used to be sticking points have come unstuck. I can make it here. After all, I made it in New York, and the song tells me I can make it anywhere after that. And in the meantime, I’m having a blast, learning a ton, and occasionally even sleeping.